For dogs, seeking out a strange smell is like watching a spectacular sunset
Just two days after Allison Vale adopted Hooper, a black lab-border collie mix, the energetic 11-week-old puppy slipped down a short but steep ice-covered hill onto his front right leg, breaking the two load-bearing bones of the limb.
“He was in a cast for two weeks,” says Vale. The injury kept her dog indoors. So to keep him entertained, Vale sought out challenging dog puzzles (which involve hidden treats) and researched games and exercises to keep Hooper entertained. While Hooper has since recovered and is back on four legs, Vale is now attuned to not just her dog’s physical needs but his mental health too.
It’s part of the reason why Vale is visiting the Scent Den, a new facility located behind the Roncesvalles dog shop Wholesome Canine. A 45-minute session costs $25 and allows just one dog into the den at a time. Vale stands back while Hooper eagerly sniffs his way into a bag of shoes, cloth bags hanging on a low line and a small box stuffed with upright toilet paper tubes that have treats hidden at random. After a brief rest on a fluorescent blue blanket folded along a wall, Hooper’s nose leads him to a nearby plastic cup with peanut butter smeared on the inside. Jackpot.
Developed by dog trainer Helen Moore, the Scent Den looks like a messy kids play room at first glance. But the facility is a culmination of months of research and flights to Swindon, United Kingdom to visit the Dog Nose, an indoor training facility where Kirsty Grant trains dogs for scentwork.
The Scent Den was inspired by Grant’s facility and combines Moore’s experience as a dog walker, dog trainer and behaviour coach. “People think ‘I’ve got to walk my dog three times a day, I’ve got to feed them’,” says Moore. “ ‘I’ve got to tire them out’ is a big attitude but balancing physical with mental exercise is key to good emotional health.”
Moore points to an ongoing study in Bangalore, India run by Sindhoor Pangal who runs a Canine Behaviour school, that shows street dogs spend the majority of their waking hours resting, observing and exploring. “If we watch them, they like to explore, they like to scavenge,” says Moore. “They’re not running around chasing cars or roughhousing in the middle of the street.” New research from Barnard College shows that dogs engaging in “olfactory foraging behaviour” leads to positive emotional states compared to dogs that engaged in obedience training activities.
Don Hutton is a Toronto-based dog trainer who specializes in dogs with problematic behaviours such as leash reactivity (pulling or barking at other dogs during a walk), fearfulness and poor recall (dogs not coming when called). Hutton uses scent activities as an “enrichment opportunity” to help train out these negative habits.
“There’s a huge deficit of opportunities to express this very strong and natural behaviour,” says Hutton. “In providing lots of opportunities to do that, it’s a really great piece of the puzzle in resolving some behaviour issues.”
While it can be difficult to understand the value of sniffing to dogs, (they have up to 300 million olfactory receptors in their noses, compared to humans which have about six million), Hutton likens the experience of sniffing unique scents to staring at an incredible sunset or going to an art gallery. “They keep going in for that tenth and twentieth sniff to pull more information out of that experience,” says Hutton. “I think it’s quite mentally stimulating in that way.”
Both Hutton and Moore encourage dog owners to let their dogs sniff and smell more. When Moore returns home from work, she purposely leaves her bag on the ground for sniffing. “Whenever I travel, I leave my suitcase in the living room for at least 24 hours,” explains Moore. “They will go back to that so many times because that’s like them hearing all your stories from wherever you went.”
The two also recommend treat searches: hiding treats in the garden, backyard or even around the house. Hutton also suggests hiding treats or sprinkling freeze-dried liver dust on snuffle mats: small mats with long lengths of fleece fabric that a dog can really get their nose in. There are also dog puzzle toys that require more skillful sniffing, nudging and pushing to release treats hidden by the owner in secret compartments.
Back at the Scent Den, Hooper has naturally found his way towards one of these puzzles, which Moore has loaded with tasty liver treats. After a quick sniff of a bag full of wool freshly shorn off of sheep from Scotland and sticks procured from animal enclosures at the High Park Zoo, Hooper’s 45 minutes at the Scent Den are up.
“He’s going to sleep well tonight,” says Vale, “He’s not going to be anxious.”
Andrea Yu is a Toronto-based writer and a freelance contributor for the Star. Reach her via email: